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Bringing spirituality to the world of Yeshiva University

New volume explores the influence of neo-chasdism on Modern Orthodoxy

From left, Rabbis Shlomo Zuckier, Zev Reichman, and Moshe Weinberger
From left, Rabbis Shlomo Zuckier, Zev Reichman, and Moshe Weinberger

They don’t look YU-ish.

With their sidecurls, or peyot, and their gartels, black cloth belts tied over their waists during prayers, you might think they are natives of a chasidic community, perhaps in Brooklyn, attending Yeshiva University as an alternative to a more secular university, but ultimately outsiders there.

But in fact, they are likely to be native to the YU’s modern Orthodox community — quite likely natives of Bergen County — who embraced a chasidic path after attending modern Orthodox schools.

And while the number of YU students fully embracing chasidic haircuts may be small, chasidic teachings, and teachers, are having a noticeable impact on the entire modern Orthodox community.

This phenomenon of neo-chasidism is the subject of a recently published 500-page book called “Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut,” published under the auspices of Yeshiva University. Its 14 essays expand on papers delivered at the 2015 conference of the Orthodox Forum think tank.

Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier edited the book. A native and resident of Teaneck, Rabbi Zuckier straddles the worlds of the yeshiva and the academy; ordained by Yeshiva University in 2013 and a graduate of its post-rabbinical Kollel Elyon, he teaches Talmud at various adult education contexts, and is completing a research fellowship in the philosophy of religion at the University of Notre Dame, which followed his Ph.D. in religious studies from Yale University.

He had suggested that the Orthodox Forum address the topic of neo-chasidism after the think tank’s 2013 meeting. The suggestion reflected what he had experienced in observing his peers. “Neo-chasidism clearly was an important trend in modern Orthodoxy that wasn’t being discussed,” Rabbi Zuckier said.

He had noticed an uptick of chasidic influences in the quintessentially modern Orthodox Yeshivat Har Ezion in Israel during the years, beginning in 2005, that he studied there; at Yeshiva University, he counted some of the YU chasidim among his friends, and took part in their chasidism-infused “Happy Minyan” from time to time.

And in 2013, Yeshiva University had hired Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, who had started a chasidic-infused modern Orthodox congregation in Woodmere, Long Island, to provide spiritual guidance and teach chasidic thought at its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

This chasidic influence reaches modern Orthodox circles beyond YU’s Washington Heights campus, and is present in Bergen County, Rabbi Zuckier noted. Rabbi Zev Reichman, who leads Englewood’s East Hill Synagogue and is a second-generation member of YU’s Talmud faculty, brings chasidic teaching to his classroom and synagogue; his paper on how chasidic thought can reinvigorate synagogues is included in the Orthodox Forum volume.

At Congregation Beth Abraham in nearby Bergenfield, one of the congregation’s three clergymen is Rabbi Moshe Tzi Weinberg, a RIETS graduate and faculty member whose job title at the synagogue is “mashpia,” a chasidic term literally meaning “influencer,” with what the congregation’s website describes as a mission “to inspire and encourage people to grow spiritually.”

Additionally, “there are a couple of pop-up neo-chasidic minyanim in Teaneck and Bergenfield,” Rabbi Zuckier said. All this “is a new development.”

To simplify a complex history, the chasidic movement was founded by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century, enlivening Judaism by bringing spirituality, religious enthusiasm, and previously secret kabbalistic mysteries to the masses of Eastern European Jewry.

The movement’s opponents — the Hebrew term is mitnagdim — were led by Rabbi Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman, known as the Gaon, or genius, of Vilna. The Vilna Gaon issued two letters excommunicating the chasidim — which had some local impact, but clearly failed to arrest the movement. (To give some chronological context, the excommunications were issued as, halfway around the world, American colonists were fighting their war against the British empire.) But the division between chasidim and mitnagdim endured, and can be seen in the differences between the charedi Orthodox communities in Lakewood, which are rooted in Lithuanian yeshiva culture, and those in Williamsburg and Crown Heights, which are chasidic.

But the division between the two streams did not remain as stark as the Vilna Gaon might have liked, as three of the essays in Rabbi Zuckier’s volume make clear. They explore the influence of chasidic thought on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik — YU’s towering 20th-century leader — and on two other creative and influential 20th century yeshiva figures, Rabbis Yitzchak Hutner, who led Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, and Eliyahu Dessler, who led a yeshiva in Gateshead, England, before relocating to Bnei Brak in Israel in the late 1940s.

Writing about Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Hebrew essay from the 1940s later translated as “And From There You Shall Seek” for Rabbi Zuckier’s book, Alex Sztuden describes how “Rav Soloveitchik pours mystical content into halakhic vessels, integrates mystical metaphysics, religious experience, and halakhic practice, and carves out his own unique, multi-layered understanding of how finite human beings can possibly cleave to an Infinite God.”

Rabbi Zuckier cautions that YU’s Orthodox neo-chasidism should not be confused with earlier neo-chasidic movements that brought chasidic teachings to non-Orthodox Jewish communities. That neo-chasidism was reflected in the writings of Martin Buber and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose work deeply influenced American readers in the 1950s and 60s, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a Chabad-trained rabbi who brought chasidic teachings into what became the Jewish Renewal movement.

“That whole world is largely antinomian,” Rabbi Zuckier said. “It’s either people who say halacha is not binding, or they say let’s bend the rules.”

By contrast, some of YU’s neo-chasidic teachers are very much committed to classical halakhah, and many also  infuse their teachings with some of the strictures of traditional chasidism. “Gender essentialism and separation between the genders are among Rabbi Weinberger’s central teachings,” Rabbi Zuckier said.

Some of the growth of neo-chasidism reflects the fusion between previously separate strands of Orthodoxy in post-War America and Israel, where shared common political and cultural aims made the Vilna Gaon’s 18th century excommunication a dead letter. Take, for example, the chasidic singer Lipa Schmeltzer: “He’s a chasid and a celebrity, he’s cool and influential and draws people — even non-chasidim — in his direction,” Rabbi Zuckier said.

Rabbi Zuckier said that YU’s neo-chasidism is in many ways a response “to the hyper-intellectualism of YU under Rabbi Norman Lamm,” the institution’s long-time president (whose own intellectual endeavors included his 1999 volume, “Religious Thought of Hasidism: Text and Commentary”).

“In the YU of Torah uMadda” — the school’s motto, which translates roughly to “Torah and knowledge” — “the Torah is intellectual, the mada is intellectual, and the tension between the two is intellectual,” Rabbi Zuckier said.

Neo-chasidism, however, “focuses to a greater degree on frumkeit” — religiosity — “singing, and dibbuk haverim, social connection to your friends. It’s a way to help people experience Judaism in a way that’s enlivening to them.”

To an outsider, there might appear little difference whether two YU students in the study hall are studying a page of Talmud or a teaching from a 19th century chasidic rebbe. Both, after all, are written in Hebrew characters and are considered sacred texts.

“But chasidus has a tendency to speak to existential mores and emotions more than you find in the Gemara,” Rabbi Zuckier said. “In terms of, let’s say, the experience of shame after sinning and trying to overcome it, there’s a little about that in the Gemara, but a lot in chasidus, and what you have in chasidus is often very relatable.”

That’s also a difference in how the two theological modes, that of the mitnagdim and the chasidim, view day-to-day life.

“For a mitnaged, of course you believe Hashem is running the world, you have faith, but it can sometimes be a little hard to see it every day,” Rabbi Zuckier said. “Chasidus is much more into awareness that God is in the world in every moment.”

The volume’s clearest description and analysis of YU’s neo-chasidim comes from Dr. David Landes, who had studied Talmud at YU and who earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Princeton and who worked as a private investor and lived in Teaneck until his death in 2019. Dr. Landes brings an anthropologist’s eye to his observations, and anthropological theory and his experience as a YU Talmud student in the 1970s to his analysis.

His essay centers on a farbrengen — a chasidic-style evening featuring singing and a sermon— led by Rabbi Weinberger, which is something he could not have imagined taking place back when he was a student.

“Trained in the habits of a yeshiva student of that period, I immediately felt that the farbrengen was a massive bittul zeman (waste of time),” Dr. Landes writes.

According to Dr. Landes, “The opening to Hasidut at RIETS represents a fundamental shift in the form of its religious life, from one founded upon a largely transcendent God and focused on the study of His Torah, to one in which God is highly immanent and personal and one that is focused on matters of belief.”

He reports on interviews with students involved in neo-chasidism, who started a chasidic-style minyan after “feeling depressed and alienated as students at RIETS by what they experienced as a cold and stultifying religious environment.” He tells of students who “admitted to a troubling disparity between the spiritual satisfaction they derived from davening or a farbrengen or from learning Hasidut as opposed to what they derived from traditional gemara learning.”

Dr. Landes relayed how for one student, whom he called Ari, his “sense of God’s presence suffused his daily life. Hashem often ‘helped him out’ during the day in prosaic ways: ‘The biggest thing is parking…. A spot’s open, and there is no other reason why I got that spot other than Hashem wanted me to get it. I don’t mind being stuck in traffic anymore either. I am meant to be there.’”

When Dr. Landes probed students “regarding how they knew that they were actually sensing God’s presence they generally expressed no doubt regarding the genuineness of their experience. When I asked further whether they ever ‘heard back from God,’ in the sense of receiving a direct communication of some sort, I typically received answers like Ari’s regarding finding parking spaces (parking came up more than once — these are New York City Hasidim, after all), in which unexpected beneficial occurrences in their lives were interpreted as divine interventions.”

He noted another aspect of chasidic practice taken up by these YU students: Visits to the graves of tzadikim, righteous rebbes.

“Many have been at least once to Uman” — in Ukraine — “to visit the grave of Rabbi Nahman, and some multiple times,” Dr. Landes wrote. Closer to home, “A late-night spur-of-the-moment visit” to the grave of the Lubavitcher rebbe in Queens “was a common occurrence, both an adventure and a spiritual restorative.”

Zooming out in his analysis, Dr. Landes argued that “Hasidut, with its re-enchantment of the world, would seem to disrupt many fundamental aspects of American Modern Orthodox life. At the same time, however, the form of Hasidut found at YU and at Aish Kodesh” — that’s Rabbi Weinberger’s Long Island congregation — “does not appear to challenge the neoliberal capitalist and consumerist values of American society that are shared by the Modern Orthodox, despite the strong anti-materialist ascetic values found in much classical Hasidut.”

Dr. Landes added that “The Hasidut attracting the YU Hasidim and Modern Orthodox Jews resembles aspects of contemporary American Christianity in a manner that would likely trouble many other Modern Orthodox Jews, perhaps mostly of an older generation…. Certain

of the principles of Hasidut discussed above — that God seeks a personal relationship with individual Jews, that God’s hashgahah” — oversight— “is all-encompassing, and that a Jew needs to struggle to do God’s will — bear a close resemblance to articles of faith found in contemporary American Evangelical Christianity.”

Englewood’s Rabbi Reichman, in his essay, described chasidism as a response “to a world dominated by materialism.

“The way to cure a society of deeply entrenched physicality is to teach about great spirituality,” he wrote. “Hasidut is able to transmit kabbalistic teachings in a way that is accessible and spiritually edifying to the common person, not just the specialist. In today’s era of spiritual malaise, we need this antidote, Hasidut, now more than ever.”

He said he has seen the pay-off in that approach with his congregants. “In synagogue, when I share a Hasidic lesson, many congregants say they feel encouraged and invigorated. Were it not for Hasidut they would view Judaism as a series of impersonal and frightening mandates, but through Hasidut they are able to joyfully pursue religious growth.”

He conceded that the there are dangers on the chasidic path, writing that “by focusing on spirituality, we risk forgetting that mitzvah observance is paramount. Judaism requires complete self-surrender.”

He further counseled that “It is sometimes hard to tell the difference between a pious mystic and a well-trained charlatan — especially for the layman whose learning is limited. We must emphasize that a tzaddik must be a Torah scholar, a person who fears and reveres God, and someone who hates material excess. ‘Rabbis’ who insist on always traveling first class, staying in five-star hotels or in the homes of wealthy donors every night, and give more of their attention to the wealthy than to the needy, are probably not genuine. Excess talk about belief in tzaddikim might lead to individuals believing in the wrong people, with disastrous ultimate results.”

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